Brussels beckoning

By | Category: Travel destinations
shopping gallery in Brussels

Galeries Royals Saint Hubert

Belgian capital Brussels, perhaps best known for EU wrangling and a tiny piddling statue, is something of an unsung hero – its main claims to fame hardly do it justice. Only two hours from London by Eurostar, there’s little excuse for not heading over there to scratch the surface, especially if you live in the southeast. Despite being London-based myself, I’d let over a decade pass since my last visit – in other words, it was high time to remedy this and return.

Said and done, I hopped on a Eurostar train from St Pancras, by far the most glamorous-looking station in London, if not the UK and two hours to the minute I stepped off said train at Brussels Midi station. Before long I miraculously found myself in the centre (taxis are useful like that), and after successfully dumping my suitcase at my hotel, I took to strolling the older parts of town. Ambling the pedestrianised cobbled streets, I felt instantly transported to very French France, as French was spoken all around me, something of a surprise given that the city is surrounded by Flemish-speaking regions. My initial impression, however, was all but destroyed when I took a seat at an outdoor café and ordered a kir, only to be given a long list of beer – I was in Belgium after all.

Kir obtained with some difficulty, I proceeded to the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a shopping arcade of distinction, dating back to 1847. It’s one of the prettiest in Europe and many of the shops have a long-standing, illustrious past, including the well-known chocolate shop Neuhaus and the city’s oldest clothes shop. There are also several restaurants with seats in the main arcade passage, popular at lunchtime, but far be it from me to try and have another kir quite so soon. Instead I made my way along the narrow, medieval streets – Brussels dates back to the 10th century and grew into a walled city in the 13th and 14th centuries – towards the city’s most famous square, Grand-Place (or Grote Markt in Flemish).

Grand Place

the Grand Place in Brussels

Although some buildings are currently undergoing refurbishments, Grand-Place does live up to the name. It’s grand in all sorts of ways – surrounded by opulent Guild Halls, it’s been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1998 and in 2010 it was voted most beautiful square in Europe.  Old, posh and picturesque, it’s one of the city’s absolute must-sees and I spent a good while soaking up the sights, including the 315 ft city hall with its towering spire. Continuing south, I soon happened upon a street with an altogether different vibe. Walking past that all-too-famous 17th century boy taking a leak, aka Manneken Pis, I ended up in Rue des Grands Carmes, catering more to the adventurous, well-travelled and alternative crowd, rather than your average tourist or history buff. Apart from an Ethiopian restaurant and several quirky shops, the street is also home to Le Cercle des Voyageurs (website only in in French), a cultural centre with exhibitions, performances and a restaurant serving dishes from near and far. Suitcases line one of the walls at this interesting cultural space, making weary travellers, such as myself, feel instantly at home.

No matter how comfy and inviting I’d found Le Cercle des Voyageurs, there was plenty more of Brussels left to explore and the following day was dedicated to that well-known calorific commodity – Belgian chocolate. First on the day’s agenda was a chocolate tour, starting off in the southern part of the centre in the area of Sablon (Zavel in Flemish). My knowledgeable guide Marleen had really done her homework and the tour included plenty of early historical chocolate facts, as well as visits to some of Brussels’ finest chocolatiers. Apparently Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was the first to introduce cocoa beans to Europe, after Columbus himself had spurned them. Then again, he of course thought he was in India and was probably looking for a curry.

chocolate dispaly

a display of chocolate in the Neuhaus chocolate shop

Focusing the tour around Place du Grand Sablon, also known for its weekend antique market, I soon found myself sampling several chocolate greats, including Pierre Marcolini and Wittamer, before it was time to hone my own chocolate-making skills. Comparative newcomer, Laurent Gerbaud, who spent some of his formative years in China, not necessarily a place well-known for its chocolate traditions, has nonetheless created something of a chocolate emporium in Brussels, where one can not only shop, but also partake in the making of these sweet treats. My chocolate workshop included an excellent tasting session before it was time to create my own. A mix of Madagascan, Ecuadorian and Peruvian chocolates was provided and after the initial gooeyness of getting said mix into a form, I had only a short time to decorate my handiwork with a variety of toppings from dried fruit and berries to nuts and raisins, before the chocolate solidified.

Leaving everything in the fridge to cool down further, I proceed to enjoy a chocolate-themed lunch, also part and parcel of the workshop experience. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but most of the dishes were exceedingly tasty and highly innovative, from chicory with miso and chocolate sauce to duck with balsamic vinegar and cocoa. And, best of all, after lunch, my “homemade” chocolates were ready to be taken back to the UK with me. Running the risk of chocolate overload, there was yet one more chocolate experience to be had before leaving Brussels. The Chocolate Village, a brand new chocolate museum on several floors in the northwestern part of the city, opened its doors at the end of September. The museum is one of the largest of its kind in Europe and an informative audio-guide explains the exhibits, or you can just wander around the different displays to find out all about the history of chocolate, both in Belgium and elsewhere – they even have a tropical greenhouse with the actual plants. The chocoholic in me was amply satisfied as me and my chocolates made our way onto the evening train returning to London. I felt sure that Brussels was bound to beckon me back again.

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Images © Anna Maria Espsäter

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